Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach
Mary Roach writes with enthusiasm and insight and the final chapter is a disturbing study of military autopsies which evokes the pity of war. Photograph: Gadi Kabalo
Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War
It was stories about the United States Air Force’s research into how to cope with “birdstrikes” (birds hitting aircraft or vice versa), such as the “chicken gun” with the 60-foot barrel that hurls dead chickens at planes, that drew Mary Roach to military science – not the sort that kills people but that keeps them alive. She wants to explore “the quiet, esoteric battles with less considered adversaries: exhaustion, shock, bacteria, panic, ducks”. Among the many aspects discussed are how the US army dresses its men, down to their underwear (silk is best; it’s strong and won’t end up embedded if you’re wounded), how it deals with diarrhoea, the use of maggots in the debridement of wounds, and the development of the stink bomb. Two of the most striking chapters tell how a urethra can be refashioned from cheek skin and a penis from forearm skin. Roach writes with enthusiasm, insight and a wicked wit but the chapters just mentioned and the final one, a disturbing study of military autopsies, truly evoke the pity of war and the awful injustices it wreaks on soldiers.